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Title Giambattista Bodoni: the man and his typeface

Project Visualized research report

Personal Design Project
AIGA Award of Distinction


Reading Bias / Writing ToleranceBodoniTopics in Modernism

Beauty is founded on harmony, subordinate to the critique of reason.


Bodoni the Designer

Born in 1740, Giambattista Bodoni first apprenticed at the Propaganda Fide, a Catholic press in Rome, Italy. At twenty-eight he was invited to become the director for the Stamperia Reale, the official press of Ferdinand, Duke of Parma, Italy. He worked there as director until his death. (Cleland 9)

Public admiration of the Propaganda Fide extended to its workers. Bodoni’s apprenticeship gained him knowledge and a positive reputation, inspiring invitation to become the director in Parma. Once in Parma, Bodoni developed an awesome work ethic. The Duke had such support for Bodoni that he was soon allowed to do commissioned work outside of his official duties to the Stamperia Reale, increasing his popularity across Europe.

With expanded facilities and greater freedom in Parma, Bodoni produced more than 300 typefaces. His highest aim was the production of an all-encompassing specimen book, showcasing his type and layout design. After Bodoni’s death, together his widow and foreman published the two-volume specimen book of his dreams, Manuale Tipografico. (Meggs 118)


Bodoni the typeface

The original typeface developed out of preceding anatomical changes to the letterform during the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. These changes increased contrast between the form and counterform, vertically aligned the axis, increased contrast in line width, and increased sharpness of serifs.

The designers who influenced the Bodoni typeface include Claude Garamond of 16th century France, various Dutchmen of the 17th century, and William Caslon and John Baskerville of 18th century England.

According to Alexander Lawson, all of these preceding type designers “contributed to the ideal of perfection that Giambattista Bodoni held before him in his work.” The closest relationship, however, is seen between the designs of Baskerville and Bodoni. “It was Baskerville, in fact, who made the immediate impact on Bodoni,” Lawson asserts, “causing the Italian to develop into the most widely admired printer of his time, and to be considered as among the finest in the history of the craft” (196).


Historical precedent

In 1762, the king of France commissioned a new style of letterform under the name, Romain du Roi. The letters were to be designed based on “scientific principles”, and constructed through the use of a grid and calculated curves.

Fashionable page design during this time, although based on geometric principles, combines decorative elements with typefaces of varying size and style. This is seen in the work of Bodoni’s contemporary, Pierre Simon Fournier. (Haley 48) Bodoni’s early designs reveal this French influence. In one comparison, Bodoni’s first printed specimen book of 1771, Fregi Majuscole, emulates Fournier’s established Manuel Typographique.
John Baskerville was the first printer to eliminate ornamentation in his layouts.

Alternatively he introduced unprecedented amounts of blank space and wide margins to the page. Baskerville also made significant technological improvements allowing for more advanced letterform design. Prior to Baskerville, the sharpness of a letter was prohibited by how thinly type could be cast, and how the ink that collected on the type created blobs when printed. However, Baskerville increased the quality of printing presses, papermaking processes, ink quality, and typecasting, allowing an increasing sharpness and thinness within a letter. Though Baskerville’s designs were not popular with his contemporaries, Bodoni assumed and modified them to perfect his own creations. (Meggs 114)


The beautiful contrast as between light and shade comes naturally from any writing done with a well-cut pen held properly in the hand.



Borrowed from the handwritten letterform, the serif, or the stroke at the terminal of a letter, traditionally functioned as a way to finish pulling ink when using a quill pen. The angle of the serif ’s outside edge is related to how a pen is held. Typographic historian T.M. Cleland observes that, “serifs of the lowercase letters... in the earlier types do not form a right angle with the upright strokes, but rather an acute one” (25). Caslon and Baskerville’s serifs have more severe angles than Bodoni’s, reflecting an earlier form of writing. The writing in Bodoni’s period was done by a quill cut like a chisel, so when it was brought down it rendered a broad line, and side to side a thin line. This new quill allows the creation of a form previously unattainable. This technological advancement allows the thinness of the serif to remain constant and minimal, and an equally impressive sharp right angle at the connection of the serif and upright stroke.

Bracketing, the degree of the curve that connects the underside of the serif to the upright letter stroke, decreases when moving from Caslon to Baskerville. Therefore Baskerville is said to have less bracketing than Caslon. The advancements made by Baskerville in printing technology, when combined with the influence of the particular quill of Bodoni’s period, results in eschewed bracketing. The serif’s sharp geometry and lack of bracketing results in an unprecedented crispness.

The orientation of the contrast between thick and thin within the letterform is determined by the position of the drawing pen. Because the writing style of Bodoni and Baskerville’s period required and upright pen position, the thin strokes are horizontally oriented, and occur at the top and bottom of the curved element, thus revealing a vertical axis. Caslon, drawn with an earlier form of pen positioning, has an angled axis.

As a letter is drawn, the edges of the ink not only define the letterform, but also define the edge of the negative space, the paper’s unmarked space. This is also referred to as form (the letter) and counterform (the white space). The shape of the counterform reflects the axis of the letter. The curving shape of counterforms decreases from Caslon to Baskerville to Bodoni. The elimination of bracketing also increases the sharpness of Bodoni’s counterform.

Increasing the contrast between thick and thin creates a sharpness within the letter and counterform, and therefore an unprecedented dynamism between them. Bodoni refers to these elements collectively as a “light and shade”, a natural derivation from the properly handwritten letterform. Cleland places this innovative design element in its historical context, asserting that in order for Bodoni “to achieve this ‘light and shade’ he made his thin strokes thinner and the thick ones thicker than they had ever been made in Roman types before, and he cut them with a sharpness and regularity which had never up to that time been equalled” (25).


Influence of Bodoni

The high contrast and sharpness of the Bodoni typeface continues to influence contemporary type design. New versions within the family have been created, including Bodoni MT Black, Bodoni MT Ultra Bold and Bodoni Cn Bold. Other versions inspired by Bodoni draw on its elements but adopt them for a new creation. For example, the recent design of Filosofia by Zuzana Licko draws influences from Bodoni in its high contrast and sharpness of serifs. Whereas Filosofia implements elements of Bodoni harmoniously in its design, other new versions within the Bodoni family stray from the Italian’s original treatment. The version entitled “Ultra Bodoni” has contrast to such a high degree that it looses the harmony of the letterform that was important to Bodoni, most clearly evidenced by the Ultra’s strange counterforms.

Bodoni did not subscribe to absolutes. While less bracketing, thinness of serif, and the high contrast are driving design forces, they do not act as absolutes; rather the ultimate goal is “what pleases the vision” (Cleland 26). In this spirit, the recently created Ultra Bodoni does not achieve the harmony that he desired.

Bodoni’s contribution is found repeatedly in the contemporary titling. Many designer labels in fashion use a Bodoni-inspired typeface. The tension created between the thickness and thinness of the letterform evokes both an edginess and delicate fragility that designers seek. Even the design identity from Paris’ Musee D’Orsay shows the influence of Bodoni.

The influence has stretched to eastern characters inspiring a high contrast Japanese typeface, “Kocho”, designed by Tanaka Ikko in the 1960s (Saiki 28). In a lecture at the University of Venice, Ikko observes, “Japanese visual expression rarely moves in the direction of boldness and strength, tending to fall on the contrary into the craft-like beauty.” He explains that the diversity and complexity of the Japanese language continually challenges him to break free from “the confines of this writing system” (245). Using the sharpness and contrast of Bodoni as an influence, Ikko brings boldness and strength to the typeface while maintaining the Japanese cultural value of craft-like beauty.

One of the highest achievements in design is simple beauty. Bodoni worked so rigorously that he found beauty through a few, fundamental design decisions. Bodoni’s design picks up on the trend of increasing contrast and sharpness, but reaches perfection after resolvings the intentions of Baskerville.

The Bodoni face rests delicately on the page. The thick and thin proportions within the form establish a fragile structural relationship. The tension between form and counterform creates a new relationship between the typeface and the page. Bodoni achieves the essence of delicacy and fragility by eschewing bracketing, flattening serifs, utilizing a vertical axis and increasing contrast within the letterform. The result is the archetypal modern typeface.


Works referenced

Bodoni, Giambattista. Manuale tipografico, 1788. Verona, 1968.

– – –. “Preface to the Manuale tipografico of 1818.” Manuale tipografico, 1818. London: Lion & Unicorn Press, 1953.

Cleland, T.M. Giambattista Bodoni of Parma. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1916.

“Giambattista Bodoni: king of typographers, typographer of kings.” Graphis 58 July/Aug. 2001: 90-9.

Haley, Allan. Typographic Milestones. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992. 46-51.

Lawson, Alexander. Anatomy of a Typeface. Boston: Godine, 1990.

Mardersteig, Giovanni. “Introductory Note.” G.B. Bodoni’s Manuale 1788. Verona: Editiones Officinae Bodoni, 1968.

Meggs, Philip B. A History of Graphic Design. 3rd ed. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998. 113-15.

Saiki, Maggie Kinser. “Ikko Tanaka: Once in a Lifetime.” Graphis 55 May/June 1999: 22-35.

Shaw, Paul. “Last of the Schriftkunstlers?” Print 54 Jan./Feb. 2000: 76-81.

“Three Japanese Type Designers.:” Graphis 28 1972/1973: 48-56.



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